Clashes at student fee protest

Angry scenes at Millbank Tower at student fees protest By Angela Harrison Education correspondent, BBC News

There have been clashes between demonstrators and police in London, as students and lecturers protest against plans to treble tuition fees and cut university funding in England.

Protestors have broken into the building housing the Conservative Party headquarters in Westminster.

They have set fire to placards outside.

Student leaders condemned the latest action.

They say about 30,000 people took part in a march earlier.

A stand-off is taking place between students and the police, with protestors surging forward at Millbank Tower, chanting.

Some protestors are on a roof terrace at the top of the building.

Missiles have been thrown at the police, as thousands of demonstrators crowd the street ouside.

BBC News correspondent Ben Wright is at the scene. He says the atmosphere is “very tense” and that police are four-deep outside the building.

And protestors have been cleared from outside the Liberal Democrat headquarters, where a car window has been smashed.

Elsewhere the march passed off peacefully.

The National Union of Students is threatening to try to unseat Liberal Democrat MPs who go back on pre-election pledges they made to oppose any rise in tuition fees.

Ministers insist their plans offer a “fair deal for students”.

Higher education funding is being cut by 40% – with teaching grants being all but wiped out except for science and maths.

The government expects the costs of teaching other courses to be funded by tuition fees.

It proposes that tuition fees should rise from 2012.

The plan is for a lower cap at £6,000, with universities able to charge up to £9,000 – triple the current cap – in “exceptional circumstances”.

Tens of thousands of students and lecturers took part in the march.

Hundreds of coach loads of students and lecturers had travelled to London from across England for the rally in Whitehall, with 2,000 students also travelling from Wales.

Question Time clash
At Question Time in the Commons, the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg had a fiery exchange with Labour’s Harriet Harman over fees.

He was accused of hypocrisy, because the Liberal Democrats opposed tuition fees in the run-up to the election.

But he said Labour had brought in tuition fees – and had no policy on university funding.

Ms Harman said Nick Clegg was “going along with a Tory plan – to shove the cost of higher education on to students and their families”.

Like many freshers she said, he had been led astray “by a dodgy man” he met in his first week.

Twice, she asked him to specify the size of the cut to university teaching grants – a figure she said was 80%.

But Mr Clegg did not say – and instead attacked Labour’s record on fees.

“Against fees in 1997 – introduced a few months later; against in manifesto in 2001 – introduced top up fees,” he said.

The president of the National Union of Students Aaron Porter says students will attempt to force a by-election in the constituencies of MPs who renege on a pre-election pledge to oppose any hike.

He said: “We will initiate a right to recall against any MP that breaks their pledge on tuition fees.”

In a speech in June, the deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said the coalition would bring in a right for voters to re-call their MP and force a by-election if he or she was found to have been engaged in “serious wrong-doing”.
Students plan to make Mr Clegg their first target – and say they will be collecting signatures in his constituency on Monday.

But as yet, no laws have been brought in to make such “re-calls” possible.

Mr Porter said that in some Lib Dem MPs’ constituencies, between 15 and 20% of voters were students and lecturers.

He said the cuts to university teaching budgets laid the groundwork for the government to to justify trebling fees.

But he added: “We should be clear that the government has asked students to pay three times as much for a quality that is likely to be no better than what they are receiving now and perhaps worse.”

‘Unbearable debt’
The Universities Minister David Willetts said the new system would be fairer than the present one, offering more help to the poorest students.
Students would not have to pay anything “up-front” and as graduates, would only have to pay back their tuition fee loans once they were earning £21,000 or more.

“It’s a very progressive package and I hope young people will not be put off,” he said.

“We are really putting power in the hands of students. The money will go where they choose but they will only have to pay back when they are graduates in well-paid jobs.

“I hope at the end of this we will have a better university system than we have at the moment.”

Among the crowds at the rally in London are about 400 students from Oxford.

Oxford University Student Union President David Barclay said: “This is the day a generation of politicians learn that though they might forget their promises, students won’t.

“Oxford students are making a statement that we won’t sit back and watch teaching funding decimated, we won’t sit back and watch the next generation of students saddled with unbearable debt, and we won’t sit back and watch our university become once again a haven for the privileged elite.”

Also among the crowd thronging Westminster is Johnny Davis, who travelled from Birmingham University, with 11 coach loads of students.

“The level of passion to protest is amazing,” he said.

“It shows how people are very concerned. It seems that students are getting hit time after time.

“This is an outrage to all students who have been told for the last decade to raise their aspirations and go to university.”

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said the union had hired hundreds of coaches from across the country.

She said the protest was a “very significant event”.

“It speaks volumes about the anger and concern of students and academics in further and higher education at what this government is trying to do,” she said.

Greg Judge, a student at the Centre for Deaf Studies in Bristol and an executive member of Liberal Youth, the youth wing of the Lib Dems, said: “We simply don’t agree with what the government is trying to do.

“The government needs to think again and about the damage it will cause to a generation of young people if this increase goes ahead.”

Anna Tennant-Siren, a student at the University of Ulster in Coleraine, said: “I am here because it is important that students stand up and shout about what is going on.

“Politicians don’t seem to care. They should be taking money from people who earn seven-figure salaries, not from students who don’t have any money.”

Are you a student or a lecturer? What do you think of plans to increase tuition fees? Are you taking part in the London march? Send us your views and experiences using the form below.


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